Shit Happens

January 19, 2015

This past year was one of great professional stress, and I determined not to carry it into 2015.  When I did find resolution in October, it came in a better manner than I could have imagined.  While I made some contributions to the outcome, I assure you luck was the prevailing factor.

When the dust settled, I was stunned to find my life relatively drama free for the first time in years.  My kids are at great ages in which they are relatively dependable, responsible and communicative, but haven’t begun to hate me.  Life still has plenty of stress, but a bit less overwhelming.

So I have been thinking to myself often, I really need to enjoy this.  Really.  And I dare not feel entitled to its continuation.  Sometimes we get to a good place and assume it to be a part of a long and steady trajectory.  We are certain it can only go up from here.  Enough continuous rise, and descent is certain.

In my case, I have three children heading for puberty.  Rough terrain is surely ahead.

I wouldn’t change most of the challenges of the last four years if I could, because I have learned so much.  (In case you don’t know me, they involved divorce, going back to work, and a great deal of constant professional change as I regained my working legs.)  Those stresses paved the way both to goodness, and my ability to appreciate and savor it.

When I had to fight mighty battles, I discovered I had it in me.  There is no easy path to that discovery.  When I needed to let battles go, I found I could.  When I stepped out on a tenuous limb, people who loved me cheered me on, but never with the platitude that the limb won’t break.  At 42 I’m learning to let go of false assurances, and those who love me seem to know not to give them.  I know they’ll be there if I come crashing down, and that I will find a way to recover.  This is what security means to me now.

A few days ago I rushed out of work late to get home to my kids.  I started my car and began to back up, but stopped when I saw in the rearview mirror what had to be the oddest formation of ice I’d ever seen.  That wasn’t ice, I quickly realized.  It was shattered glass.  My back windshield, it seemed, had been smashed leaving a big hole and sparkling web of shattered glass.

I took the time to confer with the security staff at my office building in the hopes this mystery would be solved via video recording.  No such luck.  I had to get home.  Fortunately it was above 0 on that January Minnesota evening.  It had snowed a good bit that day, so between the window and traffic, I was an hour and a half late getting to my kids.  Since they are not always with me, the loss of that time matters.

I was mad about the lost time, the damage, the inconvenience of the repair, and so forth.  Once home I needed to cook dinner, tend to my kids, figure out a temporary fix to the gaping hole in the dark, and shovel snow.  I was also upset at the idea someone could have done it intentionally.  There was nothing missing and nothing of value in sight anyway.  Maybe it was the temperature swings, an accident, or vandalism.  Who knows?

As I drove I remembered what I’ve been saying to myself.  Things are pretty good right now, don’t forget that.  Don’t let this minor inconvenience derail you.  It calmed me, this inner dialogue.  I believed it.

I was plenty calm by the time I got home.  I visited with my kids a bit, explained what happened, and began to make dinner.  My kids commented on how surprisingly well I was handling it.  They have far more experience seeing me freak out.  I assured them it was an inconvenience that needed fixing and not worth being upset over.  We are so lucky, I tell them all the time.  The wind was bitter that night, and the day before so cold Minneapolis schools were closed for the day.  We had dinner cooking, a warm home, and each other.

After dinner one of my girls helped me cover the gaping hole in our van and shovel the sidewalk while the other two worked on a project inside.   As I struggled to tape the cardboard to the van (adhesive and cold don’t go well together), I got really frustrated, but tried to maintain my calm.  Again, she commented on how well I was handling it.  She said it was like we were having a really good evening in spite of this bad thing that happened.  I laughed and agreed.

“You know, Mom, at times like this I really admire you.”

She went on to say she didn’t think she’d ever forget this night.  I was stunned.  I think this is the only time in over a decade of parenting that I felt like I got it right when it mattered.  I will never forget that night either.

For better or worse, no one knows you better than your children.  They see you at your very best and worst.  Despite the many pieces of parenting that make you feel helpless, we have power over them.  Holding power is the greatest test of character.

My kid’s response is largely her surprise because of how many times I had not handled stress well.  At 9, she can now reflect on her own moments of freaking out, and learn to talk herself down.   With my recently calmed professional waters, I would not have appreciated my new situation so well had I not experienced the preceding struggle.  The same is true for my kids.  I just hate that “the struggle” is sometimes me.

It is heart wrenching to fail in front of your kid.  But we all mess up sometimes, and so will our children.  There is never a bad time to improve or try to get it right.  And when our children see us fail, get back up and try again, we are telling them the absolute truth that this is how life is, and they can do it too.

Missed Conversations

June 30, 2013

When someone I love leaves this world, it is the conversations I miss most. I can imagine facial expressions, the sound of a voice, the cadence of laughter. But no matter how good my guess, I cannot perfectly conjure the response of a person who is no longer here to give it.

With each of my friends, there is something specific and unique we share, be it a love, an experience, a hope.  I have many friends with whom I can always share a book I’ve just read or a movie I’ve seen.

And since I can’t have that with one particular sweet and dear friend, sometimes I need to express it to others.  Maybe because I hope some response will approximate the one I miss.  Or maybe because I just want to put it out there.

So here goes…

You should see this movie.  It’s beautiful, and you would get how perfect its imperfection is.

You should read this.  It speaks to your observation of human nature and desire for global understanding, and most of all to your love of travel.

Adventure Capitalist cover

You should watch these.  I haven’t, actually, but saw a review of it and knew you would love it.  

You should read Christopher Hitchens, especially Hitch-22 and Mortality.  And if you wouldn’t have, which I doubt you would, then I would at least have insisted you read this piece of his in Vanity Fair, an excerpt from Hitch 22. They are so different from the Rogers book above, but you would love his command of the English language, wit, passion, and most of all his irreverence to all but the search for truth.

And there is more, but I will stop there.  Must get back to work and not spend so much time hurling stuff into the empty space.


December 25, 2012

helping-handsIt is Christmas Eve. Presents are wrapped, finally. The fire is glowing, as are a few candles. The tree is lit. The only offensive light is coming from my laptop. I am warm, safe and thankful for so much.

But I enter Christmas Day with a very heavy heart. I have seen sadness and loss and pain in my time, but never have I watched so many people I love struggling at once with such major stuff. Added to that are thoughts of the recent school shooting in Connecticut, and the knowledge that violence is still such a huge part of our world.

First, I feel inept in my ability to help. Then I feel inept at how to prepare my children to process scary news when they hear, and to meet the challenges they may one day face. Whatever plans we make, whatever policies are changed, catastrophe will always come to some, and it can arrive in the blink of an eye.  The only real comforting idea I have seen is a quote from Mr. Rogers that talks about looking for where the helpers are in times of trouble.  And indeed, seeing our capacity to help others is a comfort.

Today a friend of mine lies in the hospital, having been unconscious for a month following a cardiac episode – his recovery uncertain, though not without hope, and his role as breadwinner decidedly compromised.

His wife soldiers on, doing what needs to be done for their daughters, with the support of an amazing community and the heavy load of scary times.  She faces the struggle that is the worst fear for many of us.

So if you are inclined to be a helper, there is a fund established to aid in meeting the financial needs brought on by this medical crisis, details here.  You can read about their journey here.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post.

Peace to you all.


November 17, 2012

A good message in our post election period…


October 27, 2012

The Fairytale

There is a princess of a girl – pretty, polite and pure – who is good at heart, but powerless and poor until a rich, handsome man sweeps her away to his gigantic castle to live happily ever after.

The Reality

Boys and girls get horny after puberty and it takes us many years to learn to build the skills to maintain logical thinking in the face of biological urges.  But life does not wait.  We fall in love.  We get laid.  For some of us it happens in that order, and for the lucky few, it leads to some version of the fairytale.  And the rest of us just try and find our way.  God forbid we fall in love with someone of our same gender.  That can’t be right – that relationship can’t procreate.

The Disconnect

We live in a culture of entitlement.  Many of us feel entitled to some version of the fairytale.  We define success as having a big home, lavish meals, a big chariot, and never getting sick, disabled, divorced, unemployed and never having children with development delays or disabilities.

Then some of those whose lives look an awful lot like the fairytale – by some mix of luck and hard work – feel their achievement of the fairytale qualifies them to determine how the rest of us should live.  Because some of us see their lives as some version of our ideal, we believe them.

And this is how we come to have a lot of rich, white men feeling entitled to dictate what a woman should and can do with her body.  We should keep our legs locked at the knees, regardless of the urge or force that ends up parting them.  We should be strong enough to bear the morality of sexual choices, but not responsible or smart enough the make choices in dealing with the consequences.  If we get pregnant, we absolutely must bear that child (and associated medical bills), regardless of whether we are emotionally or financially able to do so.  And then we should either say goodbye to that baby forever, or need to become to maternal model of Cinderella’s Fairy to our children – perfectly patient and wise and able to provide for them.  If we have a male partner in parenting, we better can our career ambitions. And if there is no man in the picture, well we need to get off our asses and hold a job, too.

The Fairytale Class

These folks have toiled so hard like saints and their wealth makes them benefactors to society because their lavish spending trickles down to the masses.  Therefore they are entitled to only pay 17% tax, or some version of that.  They get a tax break, a lesser percentage, by virtue of their wealth and well-paid tax professionals.  But the struggling citizens for whom the fairytale will likely never happen, they can’t have a break on their taxes.  They might come to feel entitled to it.

If the Fairy-talers need to make a long-term investment in their business, say a large building or stadium, the government should also give them a tax break.  They are entitled to assistance because the project creates work for others.  They are not expected to plan the project around what their business can afford or whether it is a good strategic choice.  They need extra incentive from the government.

They preach small government and personal freedoms while they spend millions trying to pass laws to limit freedom and expand government mandates on personal choices.  They claim they are the ones who can “get things done”, but things they spend their energy on benefit the fairy-talers and not the masses.

Many associates of the fairytale-based politicians also believe their fairytale is a gift from God.  And well, since that has worked so well for them, they believe the rules of their faith should dictate the law of our society.  No abortion and no same sex marriage.  Same sex unions are outside the fairytale box, so they must be vile.  They can’t possibly be about love or partnership or human connection.

Only fairytale success entitles you to choice and decision-making power in your own life.  Only fairytale success entitles you to a break from funding your share of society.

A lot of important decisions will be made in this election, only some of which are covered by my little analogy. But in terms of the politically charged word ENTITLEMENT, we are all guilty to some of degree.

In this election for President, we are not deciding whether to give out entitlements, but to whom.

Commitment is a Family Value

September 15, 2012

A few words from Sandy Holthaus, author of Sandyisms:  Stories, Recipes and More from the North Shore.  Sandy is a great lady whom I have mentioned here before.  Please hear what she has to say about our upcoming vote in Minnesota as to whether we should uphold an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in our state.


I support the right for everyone to marry. It doesn’t matter to me if that marriage is between two men, two women or one of each.

This might surprise some of you who know me because I am Catholic and I politically tend to be conservative. I feel in my heart that marriage should be defined is a legal union between any two people in a committed, caring relationship.

I am proud to live in a country that goes to great lengths to stand up for the rights and freedoms of people around the world, yet greatly saddened that in 2012 we would even consider limiting or denying the right of marriage between two consenting adults.

Let’s be honest, I am afraid that publicly sharing my views could have a negative impact for me and for my family, but I feel it is more important to stand up for what I believe is right than to silently stand by and let this amendment pass.

Silence implies consent. I do not consent to this amendment. If in your heart you also feel that the amendment is wrong, regardless of your religious or political standing- VOTE NO and allow everyone the right to legally marry, because it’s the right thing to do.

The Change

August 4, 2012

I know I have posted so much in favor of the legalization of same-sex marriage that if anyone is listening, they are the already converted.

So I am going to focus on the most beautiful part of this ugly debate.

Hearts and minds are not changed by the restaurants we frequent or boycott, though both sides of the Chick-Fil-A controversy have helped make it hard to pretend this issue doesn’t matter.

They are not changed by witty put downs and name-calling on Facebook.  They are not changed by anger, no matter how righteous that anger is.

Hearts and minds are changed by openness, transparency and experience.  They are changed by the stories in our lives, and those brave enough to tell them.

So for all of you who bravely share your journey to self-acceptance, how you came to know and love yourself just as you are (or were made, by whom or however), you have my endless admiration.

You are the change you wish to see in the world.  You are the hope of all that follow you.

Our collective human nature is such that there will always be ignorance and hatred.  Know that you are doing all that you can, just by being who you are and letting us see your beautiful example.

And because I believe the ability to love oneself is integral to mental health and the capacity to love others, I will do something I rarely do:  quote scripture.

13 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

(I Corinthians 13, NIV)

There is a fresh batch of mom-on-mom hate boiling over.

Have you read the recent Atlantic Monthly piece on having it all?  I first heard of it through the profanity-laced Tweet-rant of an author I admire.   (This adds to my previous argument that if you don’t like something in the public eye, STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.)

The essay is an honest account of the challenge of balancing parenthood with a demanding career.  Anne-Marie Slaughter’s struggle led her to leave a high-level position in Washington, D.C., for academia and home during a difficult time in her son’s young life.

She did not quit or advocate abandoning one’s career.  She went back to being a professor at Princeton, which even from our first world perspective, is pretty damn high fallutin’.

She talks about the challenges still present for working mothers and what she believe needs to change.  She says, I believe, what we all need to hear.

As I read the article, I knew of the backlash brewing.  I wondered how the judgment would have fallen if the decision-altering circumstance had been a sick parent or spouse.  Or if this was a man’s essay?  And why aren’t there stories from men on this topic out there, anyway?  Because I know lots of fathers who make career choices that accommodate time with their families.

I am thrilled to have found this one in print.

On the same day I read the essay, I later met an old friend for coffee who works in academia.  He happened to mention making choices that allowed him to experience family life, which immediately brought me back to the AM article.  When I brought it up, he was familiar and agreed with Slaughter’s characterization that when one steps down from a high level government position, the professional community assumes that “family time” is code for a less honorable explanation.

In case I appear to be espousing a barefoot-and-pregnant existence for women, I am not.  Going back to work has been an enormous and long overdue boon to my mental health.  And as a person going through divorce, I do not take the economic gender gap lightly.  And I don’t dispute some of the criticism of the essay.

But I also know that I worked far harder for the employer that gave me schedule flexibility and acknowledged the importance of my family demands, than the one that held me constantly to a rigid hourly schedule.  The flexible employer had me happily checking my emails at 10pm from home.  The other had to wait until I arrived at the office.  I observed the same variation among my two sets of coworkers, regardless of gender.

Workplace flexibility is not just an issue for parents.  Our society includes the largest percentage and longest living elderly population in history.  Many of us are going to need work flexibility to meet their needs as well.  We all have personal lives, which sometimes need attention during business hours.

Slaughter’s essay inspired behavior which exemplifies a negative stereotype of women in the workplace and in society.

The catfight.

Did the brave feminists who paved my path fight for choice, or did they fight for another obligation with which to saddle the next generation of women?  Haven’t we heard enough of “You should…” ?

And is it really productive feminism to model womanhood after the historical path of manhood – all ambition and no nurturing? Maybe the struggle we should fight jointly is for a better humanity.  Maybe the fight for women’s rights must also include the right of a man to be complex and capable, just as we know we are.  Isn’t that a more productive endeavor than criticizing each other on the interwebs?

I recently read Adapt by Tim Harford, filled with compelling evidence of how traditional theories of top-down management often fail.  It illustrates how a very opposite structure often saves the day, and humbly admitting failure and learning from it lead to better solutions.

Male or female, do we really want our country run by people who need ambition more than human connection?  And are we women really leaders if we only repeat the bad habits and mistakes of the past we had little say in creating?

The author who pointed me to Slaughter’s piece as she ripped it to Tweeting shreds is a smart woman and an amazing writer.  Without a doubt, she cares deeply about the issues of women all over the world.  She is also, however, a best selling author, married to an even better selling author.  I don’t think politicians and executives dictate her or her husband’s schedule with their four children.

I’ll leave you with this:

“In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them.” – Austin Kleon

If “having it all” was such a realistic aspiration for any of us, then “what really matters” would not be such a constant part of our collective pondering.

I have known Sandy Holthaus for over a decade.  But I didn’t know she lived in a home without indoor plumbing until she was six years old.  But now, thanks to her, I know that the coldest place on earth is an outhouse in winter.

I knew Sandy was a great cook, but had no idea what a treasure trove of old home recipes she carries with her, all of which tuck neatly behind some of her funniest memories.

I knew she was smart, but I had no idea how wise she is.

I knew she was funny, but I had no idea what a master of storytelling she is.

Sandyisms: Stories, Recipes and More from the North Shore is a collection of Sandy’s stories written for her column in her local town newspaper.

The stories are delightful and come with a vast array of recipes, everything from homemade chicken soup slow cooked-all day long to her grandmother’s buttermilk sugar cookies.  The latter is the one I can’t wait to try.  And in these stories lies a glimpse of how Sandy has become the strong cookie she is today.

Also in her stories I found a sense of why I love Minnesota so much.  Like in The South where I grew up, Sandy shows how the best things in life are often shared over good food and drink and the stories that connect us all.

A sad footnote to the joy of these stories being published in one volume is that Sandy’s brother passed away unexpectedly the day after her first shipment of books arrived at her doorstep.  I found this out just minutes before I opened the book and began to immerse myself in her cheerful stories.  You can find her most recent blog post here and continue to find her writings here.

Sandyisms is available in hard cover and paperback through Amazon and select local bookstores.

Autistic License…

May 7, 2012

William James wrote eloquently about how effective the brain can be even with cognitive or emotional impairment, that a brain needn’t be complete to contribute to society, form relationships and make meaningful change.

Autistic License, an autobiographical play by Stacey Dinner-Levin, is a delightful and lovely affirmation of James’s belief.  It tells the tales of Dinner-Levin and her family as they raised their son who has autism.  After hearing about this amazing play for over a year, I finally saw its most recent production at The Illusion Theater in Minneapolis.

It is easy to point to this play as autism awareness, and even activism.  It is those things, but much more.  There is a scene early on in the play where the mother says she is “not cut out for this.”  I have said this about parenthood so many times the line sent tears down my cheeks.

This play is for parents and families of those with autism or any other presentation that can cause a child to be extra-challenging to raise.  This play is for anyone whose ass has ever been kicked repeatedly by the daunting responsibility of parenthood.  And it is for anyone who loves good theater and a well-told story, because it is both of those in spades.

Technically, the script is tight, well-paced and makes wonderful use of several theatrical elements.  A review in the Pioneer Press says it best, “Stacey Dinner-Levin knows her material cold and delivers it with unflinching honesty.”

To stay tuned for upcoming productions, see

A sample of audience response can be viewed here.

The trailer from a previous production can be viewed here.

To buy a DVD of a recent production, go here.